Power to the People -write on!

September 14, 2009

I am writing this in the week all the Beatles albums have been re-released –digitally re-mastered; ironically all those albums fail to  include John Lennon’s iconic single “Power to the People” in a time when the digital revolution is re-mastering the world.

Not re-mastered

What has digital re-mastering to do with “Power to the People”?  How can sites that help students publish pictures of drunken parties and let you know that they have just gone into a built materials lecture really be changing the world?

Well, it is all about information and the control of it.  Information is the traditional source of power in a liberal society, i.e. one in which political power does not “grow out of the barrel of a gun”.

From technically possible to real world phenomena

The big difference is this: in the old world people got what they were given either on the web or through the media or from record companies, in the new world people provide the content:  socially, politically and as consumers.

In the last five years, so much has moved from being technically possible to being a real world phenomena.

  • People trust other users more than “ professional advisors” see www.tripadvisor.co.uk, Amazon and the marketing campaign for “Mamma Mia” in which ordinary people’s positive  comments were substituted for the traditional critics negative ones to help make it one of the most popular films of all time.
  • Facebook campaigns like our own NUS HSBC campaign and Marks & Sparks Bras can demonstrate public opinion so cogently and quickly that Corporates and even governments respond.
  • Viral emails accelerating and amplifying public views and flooding politician’s mailboxes are much more powerful, cheap and immediate than old style letter writing. Take a look at the Oxfam campaigns for how well this can work.
  • There is no practical reason (excuse) not to publish full details and documentation since it can all be put on the web for the world to see.  This includes publishing the comments made by everyone on a consultative document which again shifts the power to select and ignore inconvenient views away from the leaders and towards the people.
  • Unspinning and rewriting consultative documents to make them clearer and more engaging see http://bigcitytalk.org.uk/ where a group of bloggers rewrote Birmingham’s consultative document much to the initial consternation of the city council but to the delight of the citizens.
  • Twitter has created a way for public figures to reach over the Media to talk to those who are interested direct and get some immediate feedback.  See Jonathon Ross and Wes Streeting on Twitter.
  • The fact that everyone carries a camera in their phone and that images can be published instantly changes the power relationship for anyone that is thinking of doing something shameful e.g. the hedge fund managers footage of Ian Tomlinson being assaulted by police immediately prior to his death from a heart attach at the G20 Protests in London.
  • iPhone apps have make it possible to invent and market software from your bedroom once again .
  • Laptops and iPhones together with Wi-Fi and 3g mean you can view video as easily as reading a flyer.
  • Websites are easy to set up, easy to update and it’s easy to leave comments for others to read and comment back on.

Students have sophisticated phones, broadband and compulsory connectivity before you even get to Facebook.

The sophisticated readers of Agenda will already have made the leap to ask what the implications of this are for Students’ Unions.

It changes the game on governance.

A hint of the future has come from the phenomenal growth in voting numbers which has undoubtedly been led by on-line voting unheard of numbers and percentages of students have engaged with their Union at this most basic level of deciding who will lead it.

Old style representative democracy looks a bit lame in comparison to the phenomena of facebook groups being set up to discuss and debate issues in the Union.  What happens when it is the Union, not HSBC, that the students are angry with?  Some of our students didn’t like our pricing structure for the Grad Ball this year, but the debate was all over on facebook before it got anywhere near Union Council.  Students love immediacy and informality and online debate can deliver that even better than more staid referenda using the new technology in essentially an old format.

Our traditional role of representing students is also challenged.  When we have in issue that is really important to students or even a section of students we can very quickly mobilise clear indications of support.  The problem is, it also becomes painfully clear when we are flogging the horse of student indifference.  Our opportunity is to use the web to find new ways to engage students and develop their understanding and trim our messages to reflect what they really think.

A well made video is much more likely to get a message across than the old school flyers and posters but we need to learn the new communications skills to make it effective and get it watched.

Students can and do set the agenda and we have no more control than anyone else.  The new thinking  on how to live with chaos is more important than ever: being flexible, agile and above all tuned in to your members is at the heart of every successful organisation.

So you want to take a closer look at all this?

These issues are vast; this article has given me some small space to scrape the surface.  Do you want to take a deeper look? Think it’s time to get ahead of the game on this one?  We will be exploring how to use new technology and web 2.00 to engage members at a series of AMSU/NUS seminars held over the course of the year.  The first one in November, has sold out but there will be another later in the year watch  www.amsu.net

One of John Lennon’s other tunes asked us to Imagine.  He did not imagine a world where everyone more than half the world could talk to each other, instantly. We live in such a world and our challenge is to work out how to use that people power to change the world for the better.john-lennon-imagine


AMSU Conference – What’s not to like?

June 28, 2009

amsulogoAs Jaki and I walked towards our car to head for home after the AMSU conference, Jaki said “ Why would anyone not think that was a great conference?”

It’s a very good question.

There were a number of very strong sessions from both external speakers and student union professionals.  There was a fantastic, friendly and relaxed atmosphere where people from a host of different jobs in students union and NUS mixed well and discussed some of the interesting ideas and issues that are important to us.

It was a chance to see a very good Union show us what they can do ( well done all at Brunel).

A very decent and thoughtful debate about the future of AMSU conducted in a way rarely found anywhere, with people speaking openly as friends who respect each other and really listening and taking on board points that were made.

There were some outstanding keynotes including from Brunel’s VC, the CEO of NCVO and the legend that is Heinz Wolff.  Actually Matt Hyde and I speculated about what Prof Wolff would be likely to say of relevance to the student movement.  We underestimated the man. He raised some of the most interesting ideas of great relevance to the student movement we had all week.  I found his ideas about finding new means of exchange for social goods like health support and volunteering had a strong resonance with ideas put forward by the Chair of the NUSSL E&E committee a couple of weeks ago.

The biggest problem the conference has, is that some of the leading figures in the profession just aren’t there to contribute and to discuss.

Next year we are going to have some trustees, some American Union professionals , some great new ideas including, I understand, the possibility of a stream of unconventionally structured sessions,  and as always a host of people new to the profession and developing their careers bringing challenge and vitality.

What’s not to like?

I suspect that AMSU is a bit like some people’s attitude to Radio 2.  People think that it’s not for them because they are thinking about it as it existed years ago, when their parents listened to it.

Radio 2 has moved on and so has AMSU conference.

It’s a place to raise your sights and broaden your vision. It should be the place where student union professionals process a host of ideas, drivers and experiences from inside students unions and  from the wider world and discuss what all of it means to us.

If a few more of our distinguished colleagues joined the party it could turn an already excellent event into something really remarkable. Come on guys we would love to have you join in, stop making excuses and make it a priority to help lead your profession.

See you next year?


The age of representative democracy is over

March 18, 2009

The ironical thing about the latest round of Governance changes is that we have substituted a 20th century political model, laced with euro-communism and Trotskyism, for a model based on 19th century philanthropy polished up by management consultants.

This article explores some alternatives suitable for the 21st century information age with a bias to the chaos driven new thinking.

What is this representative democracy?

Well anyone who has been involved in the running of Students Unions will know it well. Typically there is a Union Council made up of representatives of some constituency;  often their course sometimes a hall sometimes even a club or other interest group.  The idea is that they speak for and represent their interest grouping.

What’s the problem?

In practice most of these council’s struggle to get even half of their members to attend 6-7 meetings a year and they are a long way from truly representing the interests and concerns of members. Still worse, many good people who fancy taking part in running their union leave the meetings dispirited and frustrated. If they don’t want to come again not only have we failed in finding an effective way of taking decisions about our organisation but also we have failed in our mission to turn people on to participating in running society.

That most Union councillors don’t enjoy the experience and it  is not surprising as the set up shares the worst characteristics of most meetings of 30+ people:-

· Most people don’t speak

· But some people speak too much

· The structure of the meeting is formal with lots of papers

· Most people read the papers while they are at the meeting ( if at all) to try to elevate the boredom

· Rows  and bust-ups are the most interesting and least constructive elements of the meetings

· Discussion often follow rules developed for the Oxford Union or parliament in Gladstone’s time

· A few people still enjoy this caper but its fundamentally the politics society meets the debating club…at best.

In many Unions the people who like this malarkey get elected as officers of the Union so they think its great and the only way to do things properly.

What are these things for in any case?

It can’t be to let you know what students think.  We have dozens of better ways of finding that out either by market research or more often electronic and face to face communication.

We do though need a way to engage members in discussing the issues that confront them and shaping their organisation’s response to them, and I suppose ultimately being a “jury” to make the call between two or more choices when a consensus is really not emerging.  That is something far more important and engaging than computer referenda.

people start to discuss the sessions and decide what they are interested in

people start to discuss the sessions and decide what they are interested in

So if you could find a way to get ordinary students and key volunteers to set their own agenda for the a meeting and talk about the things that interest them, finally deliver a preliminary outline proposal in a way then enthused them to get more involved…would you take it?

It’s called Open Space Technology ( OST) it works- but it’s not for the faint hearted.

Find out more about it Open Space here.

Open space output a super abundance of ideas

OST is not a plug in and play solution to all democratic challenges but it points the way to finding new ways of addressing old questions. It really is a format that seems to enthuse people and get folk to contribute more fully and thoughtfully than anything else I have ever come across. The dynamic of people having the ability to leave a group that is not satisfying them is a brilliant and subtle way of controlling minorities with an axe to grind. People just leave them to it, drifting away from them  wherever they roam until, in time they get the message and change their behaviour.

You really do lose control though. You can’t say “open space is really open” then say “oh no, you can’t talk about that”. In the age of the internet, Twitter and facebook, controlling what people discuss is long gone in any case.

Of course it presents significant challenges particularly to people who like to keep policy and implementation separate. When people start getting into what they want to see improved they don’t always want to draw a hard line between the two things, indeed in my experience most people can’t do that even if they want to.

Many people need to work out, in some detail, what something would look like and how it would work as a way of developing the principles they would like to see applied. Open space encourages that approach in its classic form those present very much get stuck in to solving problems and collaborating right there and then.

People sign up for the sessions they are interested in, but they leave when they want to and find another group and topic

Those of us who believe in officers, volunteers and staff working in dynamic flexible partnerships see that as a rather attractive feature though I realise some people don’t go for that sort of thing.

Have you tried it?

We have used Open Space for Strategic Planning consultation where it work quite well, mostly and for engaging academic reps asking them how they would want to improve the quality of their educational experience where it was an astonishingly good success.

My own view is that new forms of meetings married up with more creative use of social media will come to make old style sham representative “democracy” look as strange as the General Meeting.

As for Trustee Boards I don’t think anyone claims they are democratic or engaging but that would be another blog entirely!


The manifesto for this Blog.

December 8, 2008

Its mainly about Students Unions though I think much of it may well have some relevance for other third sector people.
It is meant to challenge the conventional wisdom, hopefully with some unconventional wisdom but as the title suggests I don’t claim it as all my original thought everyone I know seems to drop a carrot or onion or even a herb or spice into the strange soup of my thought processes.


Not so much like this

Not so much like this



Hopefully what comes out is more Heston than Heinz it is exactly that “how strange but why not?” that is the ideal reaction to this stuff.

More like this man's soup

More like this man's soup









I expect however that It might be that people will annoyed or even angered and that would be OK.
I hope to avoid boring you or getting to many of those “Oh Andy!” sighs that sometimes come as a result of my outpourings to my brilliant and challenging wife.

I am the General Manager and Permanent Secretary of Loughborough Students Union and though this blog will reference Loughborough it does not necessarily represent either their policy or practice.